For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘NPR

Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, Viking: New York, 2007, 238 pp.

Speaking of FaithI don’t listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being nearly as often as I wish I could, so I was grateful for a chance to connect with her and her show in print form. Speaking of Faith is part personal and professional memoir for Tippett, tracing her own family and religious history alongside remembrances and insights from her radio interviews across the years. More than that, though, it is an ambitious prescription for how to speak about faith in a way that opens and connects, rather than closes and divides. It was this perspective that I found especially helpful at this particular moment in life and ministry, as I serve in a congregation with a wide variety of Christian backgrounds and search for language to engage a secular city.

Tippett begins with the premise that religion and religious life matters, because there remain questions that only religion can address, “how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.” (4) Engaging with Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, she writes:

We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action. We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail. Bonhoeffer said we would have to rethink the very forms and vocabulary of faith if we were to keep it alive in the center of life, in the middle of the village. (41)

Drawing on her own experience in communist East Germany, she observes that regimes that exert excessive control over people’s outer lives can cultivate rich inner lives within those same people, yet it seems that people in power often have inner lives that are the most impoverished. (45) I found this reminder of religion and spirituality as cultivating a rich inner life a particularly important insight for the work within my own congregation.

Tippett later develops this concept as having “eyes to see and ears to hear.” While that borrows Christian language, she finds the concept in every religious tradition she has engaged.

Something mysterious happens when you train your eyes to see differently, your ears to hear differently, to attend to what you have been ignoring. The experienced world actually changes shape. (115)

This is as good an understanding of prayer and spiritual practice as any I have heard–engaging in spiritual disciplines changes our experience of the world.

Tippett structures the conversations in her broadcast around first-person narrative theology, inviting people to speak the truth they know without condemnation of others. Always navigating fundamentalist or domineering perspectives, she quotes Martin Marty, who does not divide the world into conservative and liberal but “mean and non-mean.” (161) Fundamentalism does not accurately represent any faith tradition. Both conservatives and liberals can practice and articulate their faith in ways that are mean or non-mean. This seems a constant good measure of our faith.

Tippett’s book was interesting and insightful, though not life-changing. I enjoyed it, and recommend it as a good perspective, especially for those who might be outside of faith and looking for a way to engage and understand what is happening in the lives of religious people of all stripes.

 

 

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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 337 pp.

downloadI kept hearing Joshua Ferris on the radio on NPR in recent weeks, but always interrupted—I’d catch an appreciative glimpse from the host or quip from the author, along with the book title. When the title appeared on the “new books” shelf in my local library, it seemed a small miracle. In our small town, I often have to wait a long time for the newest NPR-promoted titles. I grabbed it up, excited to be the first one to take it home to read.

And then I started reading it, and discovered I really didn’t like it. Meeting the narrator, Paul O’Rourke, was like going on a blind date with a guy you met online, only to discover that instead of sensitive and interesting, he’s just a self-centered nerd consumed with his own loneliness, lust, and baseball. He is unable to connect, especially with women, and lacks empathy, which made it impossible for me to empathize with him. At the end of my first date with the book, which lasted for 50 pages or so, I didn’t really want to see Paul O’Rourke ever again.

Yet all that NPR press made me keep going. I realized it was outside my typical style, so I persisted in the hopes that I would be won over. In the end, I can’t say that I liked the book or enjoyed reading it, but I am glad I did bother to finish it. It had its moments, and by the end I found some sympathy for Paul O’Rourke, likely because by the end of the book he became a more sympathetic character.

Paul O’Rourke is a dentist in New York City with an elite clientele, an obsession with the Red Sox, and a terribly needy and disastrous history with social and romantic relationships. His life carries on from day to day, back and forth between his dental practice and his nightly Red Sox rituals, and the narrative we hear of this life is petulant and awkward. The plot of the book begins when someone anonymously creates a website for his dental practice, followed by a strident social media presence. The anonymous “other Paul” begins a prolific public campaign of speech for him, including allusions to a strange new/ancient religious and ethnic sect. At first, O’Rourke is obsessed and angry, but he eventually becomes intrigued and even enamored of the other Paul’s ideas. The experience sends him on a quest for a deeper engagement in life, breaking him free from his strangled approach to relationships and opening him to new possibilities. It is a hopeful story.

I think it was the passages about the experience of being a Red Sox fan that kept me going and made me want to read more. The author captures my own relationship with the Red Sox, before and after 2004.

The single happiest night of my life came in October of 2004 when Mueller forced extra innings with a single to center field and, more spectacularly, David Ortiz homered in the bottom of the twelfth, halting a Yankees’ sweep of the American League Championship and initiating literally the most staggering comeback in sports history, culminating in a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to take the World Series. It was the validation of all those years of suffering, the cause of an unexpected euphoria, and a total cataclysm. Sometime in 2005 … the unlikely fact that the Red Sox had won finally sank in, and a malaise crept over me. I wasn’t prepared for the changes that accompanied the win—for instance, the sudden influx of new fans, none of them forged, as it were, in the fires of the team’s eighty-six-year losing streak. … I worried that we would forget the memory of loss across innumerable barren years and think no more of the scrappy self-preservation that was our defining characteristic in the face of humiliation in the face of defeat. (147)

He carries on there about becoming the team we’ve always hated, poaching players and buying victory, all the same feelings I’ve had since the Red Sox changed from being perpetual heartbreakers to repeat champions. Winning is great, but it changes what it means to follow my team. Later in the book, he reflects on the end of the 2011 season:

How happy I was that the Red Sox were acting once again like the Red Sox: a cursed and collapsing people. I didn’t want my team to lose; I just didn’t want my team to be the de facto winner. … It was our duty, as Red Sox fans, to root for Boston than it was to ensure in some deeply moral way—I really mean it when I say it was a moral act, a principled act of human decency—that we not resemble the New York Yankees in any respect. (324)

Oh, how refreshing to read someone who gets me about being a Red Sox fan.

So, the book had its moments. Excellent commentary on Red Sox fandom, interesting reflections on postmodern religion and the role of doubt, along with the problems of identity in our social media constructed culture. I may not have enjoyed it, but I finished it—and didn’t regret the time spent.

 

 

 

I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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